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(New York) - Human Rights Watch today condemned a proposed constitutional reform in Chile that would give permanent immunity from prosecution to all former heads of state. The Chilean parliament is expected to pass the new measure by the end of March.

"This law would make it virtually impossible to prosecute Augusto Pinochet back home in Chile," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "The Chilean government should be trying to strengthen, not weaken, the country's democratic institutions."

In the coming weeks, U.K. Home Secretary Jack Straw may allow Gen. Pinochet to leave England, where he was arrested in October 1998.

Gen. Pinochet arranged "senator-for-life" status for himself, when he left power in 1990, thereby ensuring his immunity from prosecution. But since the former dictator was arrested in London, the Chilean judiciary has proved more willing to consider lawsuits against him.

If Pinochet returned from London and if he were not exempted from prosecution on the grounds of ill health, Chilean lawyers and human rights activists had hoped to sue for the outright revocation of his immunity. The proposed constitutional reform would vastly complicate that undertaking. Most countries in Latin America grant their legislators and/or public officials immunity from criminal prosecution, but in most cases it ends when they retire, and it covers only the period when the person is actually in office. Chile's new law would give its public officials the most extensive immunity on the continent.

"The proposal would give blanket immunity not only to Pinochet, but to any other dictator who might come after him," said Vivanco. "It would set them completely above the law, no matter how brutal or corrupt their regimes may be."

On January 19, with the country in the midst of its annual summer holidays, President Eduardo Frei gave the proposal "high urgency" status, and the Chamber of Deputies approved it without modification on January 25. The matter has received strikingly little debate in the Chilean press. By law, the bill must be approved by both chambers of parliament, meeting in plenary, within sixty days. It could therefore become law in the last week of March.

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